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Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder 
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 Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder

This thread is for the discussion of Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder. :clap:



Tue Jan 13, 2015 5:34 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
This little paragraph is what separates Sagan from most of our beloved critical, rational celebrity atheists of today:

Quote:
And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs Them - the sense that we have a monopoly on truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you're sensible, you'll listen to us; and if not, you're beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of psuedoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.



I'm not sure what Sagan would think of men like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, and the late Chris Hitchens.
But I do know this; none of the aforementioned individuals have used a compassionate approach. They have only enabled and encouraged a polarized culture.

After 911, Harris, Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins reactionary response was nothing short of jujitsu politics, in my opinion.

Fallacious caricatures of religion and religious people, gross oversimplifications of history, and shoddy theological speculations by these men accomplished, to a degree, precisely what one of the goals of terrorism is - polarization of the "enemy's" society.

Perhaps Sagan would have responded similarly. I don't know.
But I'd like to think that he wouldn't have.



Tue Feb 10, 2015 11:18 am
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 Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
This clearly explains some tensions at the heart of science and thought in general.

Quote:
As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes—an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or conterintuitive, and the most ruthlessly skeptical scrutiny of all ideas, old and new. This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track. These two seemingly contradictory attitudes are, though, in some tension.

...If you're only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything. You become a crotchety misanthrope convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) Since major discoveries at the borderline of science are rare, experience will tend to confirm your grumpiness. But every now and then a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you're too resolutely and uncompromisingly skeptical, you're going to miss (or resent) the transforming discoveries in science, and either way you will be obstructing understanding and progress. Mere skepticism is not enough.

At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis. If you're open to the point of gullibility and have not a microgram of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the promising ideas from the worthless ones. Uncritically accepting every proffered notion, idea, and hypothesis is tantamount to knowing nothing. Ideas contradict one another; only through skeptical scrutiny can we decide among them. Some ideas really are better than others.

The judicious mix of these two modes of thought is central to the success of science. Good scientists do both.

pgs. 304 - 305



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Wed Feb 11, 2015 8:40 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
“Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee, is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns.

These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth; narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ. There is – I repeat it – a difference; and it is a good, and not a bad action to mark broadly and clearly the line of separation between them.”

― Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre


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Thu Feb 12, 2015 1:11 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Quote:
At the same time, science requires the most vigorous and uncompromising skepticism, because the vast majority of ideas are simply wrong, and the only way to winnow the wheat from the chaff is by critical experiment and analysis. If you're open to the point of gullibility and have not a microgram of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the promising ideas from the worthless ones
- Carl Sagan

One subject I wish Sagan would have touched on is the demarcation criteria between science and psuedoscience.
Sagan philosophizes throughout the book. There are many instances where most of us can agree he is not speaking scientifically. A philosophical discussion on demarcation would have allowed some readers to perhaps investigate on their own if SETI has a smattering of psuedoscience to it, or is missing essential elements of scientific practice (ie critical experimentation).

First there's the problem of detecting a message for what it is - a message from an intelligent alien civilization.
The second problem is - that's the problem (see problem number one) - deciphering the message.

The first problem is at least "easier" to solve than the second because language as we know it is non random.
A glance at a coded message from outer space, although not random, may appear to be random, given all the comic noise to deal with.

SETI researchers encrypted a message so that it should have been easily decipherable and gave it to Nobel laureates for decoding. None of them succeeded, although all the participants actually knew it was designed to be decrypted.
How might an alien message be successfully recognized, much less deciphered?
And what would we test it against? Is testability even possible with this type of science?

The entire SETI project is anthropocentric. Exotic forms of life that might be able to live within the center of stars or on the surface of neutron stars are beyond our reach and understanding. No? Prove it

Theoretical biologists have argued that intelligence is so unlikely to evolve, it's virtually inconceivable that it's evolved more than once in our galaxy. And, as I've mentioned before, defining "intelligence" in this context is not as easy as it sounds. "I'll know it when I see it" is not a very good scientific hypothesis.

Sounds like science fiction?
That's cause much of this is highly presumptuous on the part of scientists.

What happened to vigorous and uncompromising skepticism?



Last edited by ant on Thu Feb 12, 2015 3:53 pm, edited 3 times in total.



Thu Feb 12, 2015 3:45 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
I might have opined this already. SETI pseudoscience would have something resembling theories, and a set of conclusions drawn from these theories amounting to claims about reality. Does SETI have these, or is SETI really an hypothesis that awaits testing? Are the means with which it is being done scientific?--seems like it. Where is there proof of charlatanism? Yes, SETI could be a dry hole, but some people really want to find out. For you, the unknown unknowns make this a fool's mission, but it can still be a scientific fool's mission. We can scientifically investigate astrology if we want to, and in fact that has been done. SETI has a lot stronger basis than astrology, though.



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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
DWill wrote:
I might have opined this already. SETI pseudoscience would have something resembling theories, and a set of conclusions drawn from these theories amounting to claims about reality. Does SETI have these, or is SETI really an hypothesis that awaits testing? Are the means with which it is being done scientific?--seems like it. Where is there proof of charlatanism? Yes, SETI could be a dry hole, but some people really want to find out. For you, the unknown unknowns make this a fool's mission, but it can still be a scientific fool's mission. We can scientifically investigate astrology if we want to, and in fact that has been done. SETI has a lot stronger basis than astrology, though.



Well, let me just start off by saying I personally do not think SETI is a fools mission. It's more of a research program than anything that can be identified as pure science.

Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is more science than SETI is for one simple and obvious reason that I'm certain you know.

What distinguishes astrology from science is that it can not be falsified and it makes no progress.
Think about that - astrological data used as a forecast for someone's immediate or distant future can always be adjusted so as to remain relatively accurate.
And astrology has no evidence that the accuracy of its predictions have increased over time.



Fri Feb 13, 2015 12:40 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Ant wrote:
(SETI is) more of a research program than anything that can be identified as pure science.

I mentioned a hypothesis, an equation, and probabilities before—we're looking for objective evidence for support – sounds quite scientific. You agree it's worthwhile, so I don't understand these repeated questions.
Ant wrote:
Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is more science than SETI is for one simple and obvious reason that I'm certain you know.

Not me. YEC is based on one book and is impervious to skepticism—it's extremely non-scientific.
Ant wrote:
What distinguishes astrology from science is that it can not be falsified and it makes no progress. Think about that - astrological data used as a forecast for someone's immediate or distant future can always be adjusted so as to remain relatively accurate.

What? Of course it can be falsified. Astrology makes gobs o' predictions, just track 'em. Don't allow adjustments to the predictions. Someone had a reading done on me (without my knowledge) a long time ago based on astrological data such as birth place and time, etc. The astrologer predicted my car would have serious problems 4 months in the future. This turned out to be true. I had no problems with that car for six months before or after the predicted month when it did require a significant repair. That remains a head-scratcher for me to this day. However the same reading predicted an old person would die and leave me a large amount of money in the near future. Nope!
Ant wrote:
And astrology has no evidence that the accuracy of its predictions have increased over time.

Well I see where you're going with that, I'm sure it's true except I don't recall any evidence of the accuracy of its predictions at all. (I.e. if the evidence was strong, it would have been strumpeted in the media.)
Carl Sagan wrote:
Many valid criticisms of astrology can be formulated in a few sentences: for example, its acceptance of precession of the equinoxes in announcing the "Age of Aquarius" and its rejection of precession of the equinoxes in casting horoscopes; its neglect of atmospheric refraction; its list of supposedly significant celestial objects that is mainly limited to naked eye objects known to Ptolemy in the second century, and that ignores an enormous variety of new astronomical objects discovered since (where is the astrology of near-Earth asteroids?); inconsistent requirements for detailed information on the time as compared to the latitude and longitude of birth; the failure of astrology to pass the identical-twin test; the major differences in horoscopes cast from the same birth information by different astrologers; and the absence of demonstrated correlation between horoscopes and such psychological tests as the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory.
pg 303

Between SETI, YEC, and Astrology, you seem to have an imbalance between the two contradictory attitudes of science I quoted above: openness to new ideas and skepticism. :)


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Fri Feb 13, 2015 8:31 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
ant wrote:
Young Earth Creationism (YEC) is more science than SETI is for one simple and obvious reason that I'm certain you know.


It can be falsified. But it's sort of apples to oranges. SETI utilizes a lot of science, but it isn't a theory or hypothesis.


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Fri Feb 13, 2015 10:16 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
But I was distinguishing the two.



Fri Feb 13, 2015 11:51 pm
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 Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Lanroid;

What you are failing to understand is falsification, what I meant by my comment about astrology, and my comment about YEC.

Interbane knew why I said YEC was science (or should be considered science) as it relates to falsification.
Not saying he agreed with anything else immediately after.

The ideas about SETI and psuedoscience are deeper than a simple dismissal of demarcation because a hypothesis can be claimed.



Sat Feb 14, 2015 9:54 am
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
SETI is a program. It isn't an acronym for a hypothesis or theory, although there may be theories and hypotheses in the program. With that said, falsification doesn't necessarily distinguish pseudoscience from regular science. There are many theories or hypotheses that scientists admit are not falsifiable, yet are definitely science. Falsification isn't the go-to criteria it used to be.


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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Interbane wrote:
SETI is a program. It isn't an acronym for a hypothesis or theory, although there may be theories and hypotheses in the program. With that said, falsification doesn't necessarily distinguish pseudoscience from regular science. There are many theories or hypotheses that scientists admit are not falsifiable, yet are definitely science. Falsification isn't the go-to criteria it used to be.


Its just one aspect of the question. Never said it was entirely the reason.



Sat Feb 14, 2015 11:24 am
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Let's think of a hypothetical:

Say, at the end of the year, SETI makes an announcement that it has detected a message that appeared random at first, but after careful analysis SETI concluded was non-random and intelligent.

The question would follow - why was source of the message determined to be from an alien intelligence.
Answer - it was decoded as "can you understand this communication"
(note: isn't that the ultimate goal of SETI - to detect AND decode a non random message?)

Nothing else followed the message. other than the normal cosmic noise, no additional communication has followed.

Questions:
Please tell me how the claim that the message was an alien language can be tested for accuracy.
What would the syntax and semantical structure be tested against and how would the conclusion be open to falsification.


Here's something else to think about, perhaps:

Consider the possibility that our current technology is simply not up to the task of detecting a highly advanced alien message from outer space.
Isn't that a reasonable idea at this point after 50 years, despite our advancements?
I say it is.

Now suppose the response to a proposition "our technology is not advanced enough yet to detect or communicate with alien intelligence" is
"But it will be. Look how far we've come technologically speaking since our search for ET began"


Is a prediction about future capabilities enough to justify SETI as science?

It doesn't seem very fair to base a hypothesis on speculative predictions.
Is that how science works?


Yes - I'd say SETI is a research program.
Is it based entirely on scientific methodologies? I'd say no.

I don't see why this is a hard thing to swallow for some people. It seems very naive to think because scientists are working on something it must be unquestionably Science.

Paul Davies is likely to convince me that SETI is pure science. I just don't think Sagan even tried to explain why it is, in this book.
It's as if his being a scientist (AKA "authority figure") is enough to imply that it unquestionably is.

Is that being skeptical?



Sat Feb 14, 2015 2:22 pm
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Post Re: Chapter 17: The marriage of skepticism and wonder
Quote:
Yes - I'd say SETI is a research program.
Is it based entirely on scientific methodologies? I'd say no.


It's a program that uses science, but it uses other things as well. I agree. You're returning to this quite a bit, and I don't understand why. Is someone claiming something they shouldn't be? I know we both agreed that SETI is a shot in the dark, but that we might fund it if we were billionaires as a form of existential gambling.

Regarding a message they might find, I appreciate the wisdom of searching for prime numbers. The reason is that prime numbers are the intersection of the two best criteria - the message must be meaningful yet patternless. Nature produces patterns, so even if we find an exceptionally rare pattern, it could simply be some natural phenomenon we haven't uncovered yet. Yet what sort of message is one that has no pattern, yet also has meaning? A sequence of prime numbers fits the bill exactly. There could be a thousand intelligent alien civilizations sending out messages that we'd never find. But if just one of them comes to the same conclusion as us, we're in luck.


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